How Africa’s most successful economy has produced a political crisis that may tear it apart
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | It is eight months now since the armed conflict between the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), began. Initially, government troops, supported by Eritrean troops, seemed successful; capturing the Tigrayan capital of Makelle in late November. The government issued a statement declaring that what was remaining were mop-up operations. Four weeks ago, TPLF retook Makelle. Ethiopia may be settling into what may become an intractable civil war.
But Tigray is not the only hot stop in Ethiopia’s likely descent into chaos and anarchy. Oromia, the most populous region of Ethiopia and home of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, is restless. The Ogaden region that borders Somalia has had a long running mini civil war. And now the Amahra region, allied to the central government, has sent its own militia to fight against the Tigray. If the situation is not handled with considerable political and diplomatic skill, we may see Ethiopia on the road to Somalia.
Two things about this conflict are intriguing. First, since the TPLF captured power in 1991 (30 years this year), Ethiopia has been the most dynamic and successful economy in Africa. In terms of GPD growth, it has been the second fastest growing economy in Africa, behind Equatorial Guinea, and fifth in the world behind China, Qatar and Cambodia. It is one of the few countries in Africa where manufacturing as a share of GDP has been increasing, thereby showing potential to attract excess labour out of agriculture in rural areas to industry in urban centers.
Yet by 2018, Ethiopia was beset by widespread protests that led to the collapse of the government of Prime Minister Haile Mariam. Why did Africa’s most successful economy also become one that manufactured intense public discontent?
The high priests of African politics had a ready answer: Ethiopia was being ruled by authoritarian “regime” that stifled freedom, jailed political opponents and journalists. Because it was not subject to “checks and balances”, “regime” insiders indulged corruption and human rights abuses, “looting” public resources and torturing prisoners.
The solution, according to the priesthood, was obvious and as is always the case with Africa, it is picked from a textbook – democracy. So, in comes the new and young prime minister in his late 30s, Abiy Ahmed.
Drinking from the rich well of theory, filled with boundless optimism, hope and new energy, he launched a series of reforms based on the gospel preached by the priesthood. He released political prisoners and journalists, allowed opposition politicians to operate, invited political exiles to return home, liberalised the media and allowed free debate and expression etc.
Ethiopia was on the road to become a Jeffersonian democracy, never mind that Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the USA, ruled a country where only a tiny number of propertied white men could vote. Meanwhile Native Americans were being exterminated, African Americans were still enslaved, women and poor white men had no vote. But who cares, there was freedom of the press, freedom of political organisation, an independent judiciary and an equally independent parliament.
Abiy did more than that. He reached out to Ethiopia’s long-standing enemy, Eritrea and made peace with it. Where former prime minister Meles Zenawi had facilitated political parties and a federal system based on ethnic identity, Abiy launched a nationalist party and invited all other ethnic parties to join. To clean the past, Abiy also fired and/or jailed many former leaders of Ethiopia who had been accused of corruption and human rights abuses. Not surprisingly they were largely from TPLF which had dominated power. On the basis of these reforms, Abiy was hailed as a reformer and a moderniaer. He even won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
So what has gone wrong in a country where economic success had now been linked to internationally acclaimed political reform to create the textbook case of good governance and prudent leadership? Of course, the priesthood will not look at how wrong (or unfitting to the Ethiopian context) their solutions are. Right now, they are trying to pinpoint the cause of Ethiopia’s problem. They will say Abiy’s solutions were right but he implemented them badly. They will claim he was not thoroughgoing enough and find other faults to blame him.
I do not want to claim any expertise on Ethiopia. In fact, I am running the risk of doing exactly what I am accusing the priesthood of doing – giving a standard textbook explanation combined with one-size-fits-all solution. But let me hazard an explanation and an answer. The crisis of Ethiopia is primarily political. However, I think economic factors have provided the spark.
First, rapidly growing economies tend to produce new social forces – a more educated, exposed and therefore aspirational young people. These expect and demand more. However, opportunities are never enough to meet these expectations. The mismatch between these expectations and available opportunities leads to social frustrations hence a tendency towards political protest.
Therefore, the protests that engulfed Ethiopia from 2014 to 2018 were expected given its rapid economic change. The challenge was how to handle them. The most suitable answer to protest is never to give in, because that only incentivises protesters to demand more. The most effective and appropriate response is repression. Once a government has gained full control, it should pursue reform in slow and measured ways under its own terms. Ethiopia seemed to have done this. So where did it error?
Although repression had succeeded, Abiy failed to handle the problem of TPLF tactfully. The TPLF had run Ethiopia for 25 years. During this period, it dominated the economy and the military. To consolidate power, he needed to curb this economic and military power. I am told by Ethiopian friends that he sought to do this too quickly and on a large scale. Abiy should have studied Daniel arap Moi (how he handled a similar situation involving the Kikuyu in Kenya from 1978-82) and Robert Mugabe (how he handled the whites in Zimbabwe from 1980-98) for lessons on such transitions.
But the Ethiopian case is even more complicated in large part because under Zenawi, regions had been given considerable autonomy, with their own police forces and militias. This meant that any reform towards a nationalist party, central control, etc. needed to be sequenced and slow. It also meant acting carefully not to threaten entrenched Tigrayan interests by slowly eating away their power without causing them to feel immediately threatened. In purging them from the military, prosecutung their leaders for corruption and human rights abuses, Abiy appeased the priesthood but undermined the delicate balance he needed to ensure reform with stability.